The Tour Down Under is a fine race that ably suits its (presumed) purpose: celebrating the excellence of Australian Cycling with a multi-day event that balances competition with a realistic sense of the calendar. Like the Tour of California, it's just hard enough to make for good racing in January, when the top Euro-based riders are in Build-2 mode. It gives the domestic teams a level-playing-field shot at the big boys. But that's not the same as a mid-season race.
So why is it a Pro Tour event? Because Pat McQuaid has an "if you build it, they will come" approach to the calendar. If I understand it, his mission is to build the Pro Tour into a worldwide megabrand, which would then make team- or race-sponsorship appealing to the largest multinationals (Coke? Pepsi? Car makers? Microsoft? etc.), who would then flood the sport with cash. It's not the worst idea, and someday we may be referring to McQuaid as a visionary (hang on, I think my fingers just melted).
The downside is that the Pro Tour ceases to be a series of the world's most competitive races. Frankly, the Pro Tour brand, to a serious fan, was already dead: the made-up races inflicted serious wounds, and the Grand Tours pullout (removing 4 of the 5 monuments as well) finished it off. So a few winter races can't kill it worse. They just remind us that the Pro Tour is about marketing the sport's top riders and teams, not running a World Cup-style race series.
This sounds like a double-diss on Australia... but I only mean it as a single one. Cadel Evans as World #1 does nothing for me. But by crafting a nicely balanced race, the Tour Down Under is Podium Cafe-approved. A few notes on the race itself, which I don't actually know very well:
- First, they have a solid website with plenty of info, including a startlist. CN has a useful course map probably lifted from the TdU site.
- No live coverage that I know of, though Aussie media may fill that void, for any readers not sleeping during the race. Here in the states, Cycling.TV will be showing highlights daily on their premium channel.
- The course consists of a prologue, four days of moderately climby stages in and out of the spine of hills or mountains that divide Adelaide from Victor Harbor, followed by two final flat stages in circuit race and crit formats, respectively. This is a slight expansion of last year's five-stage version, with more time spent in the hills, so perhaps the GC will see final time gaps in excess of the handful of seconds separating the top spots the past few years. Possibly not though.
- The startlist is the usual quality: solid for January. 2007 winner Martin Elmiger (whose name I vow to spell right all next week) is back with his AG2R mates to defend his title. Other big names include Stuart O'Grady, Simon Gerrans, Robbie McEwen, Luis Leon Sanchez, Philippe Gilbert, Graeme Brown, Allan Davis, and a loaded High Road squad (Adam Hansen, Marcus Burghardt, Bernhard Eisel). I have no idea who'll win, but Hansen's form and ability to stake out a lead in the prologue makes him my guess. The "climbing stages" are more prone to breakaways (which High Road can nail back) and sprint finales than real selections, nothing a fit and motivated Hansen couldn't handle.